Deserts and Oceans: What Bighorn Sheep Can Teach Us About Marine Fisheries

Bighorn sheep

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to assist with a desert bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis nelson) recovery and translocation project in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas. We captured 82 bighorns by helicopter, carried them to a processing station where we collected blood samples, hair samples, nasal swabs and the like; GPS telemetry collars were attached, and the sheep were loaded into trailers and trucked to another expansive wildlife management area along the Rio Grande, near Big Bend National Park. There the bighorns were released to pursue their chief interests (grazing, mating, avoiding mountain lions) in the company of others of their species who had already made the area their home.

When some very tough English-speaking ranchers first came to that part of west Texas in the late 19th century, desert bighorns were a native part of the landscape, eking out a living together with the other creatures that call the desert home. Part of what makes a desert a desert is that there is comparatively little of anything there, and though no one knows for sure, biologists estimate that there were only about 1500 bighorn sheep in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas in 1880 – the only part of the state that has the kind of craggy, mountainous habitat bighorns like.

As is often the case, the human newcomers to the region had a checkered relationship with native wildlife. They hunted bighorns for food and also because they competed for forage grass with domestic sheep, goats, and cattle – despite the fact that the state of Texas outlawed the killing of bighorn sheep in 1903. Diseases introduced by domestic livestock, like scabies and pneumonia, also took their toll on the population. By the early 1940’s, there were only about 150 bighorns left in Texas, and the last native ewe was spotted in the Sierra Diablo Mountains in 1958.

Around the same time, forward-thinking wildlife managers began restoring habitat and reintroducing bighorns to west Texas from neighboring states, beginning with 16 sheep brought from Arizona in 1957. By the early 1970’s the herd had grown to about 70. The sheep expanded their range, while efforts continued to supplement their numbers with translocated sheep from other areas. Today desert bighorns may be found not just on the wildlife management areas where they were originally reintroduced, but also on nearby private and federal lands, as well as in the Coahuilan desert of northern Mexico. Wildlife managers estimate that by 2015 the population of desert bighorns in Texas had been restored to its historic level, and the herds continue to grow.

This ongoing conservation success is directly parallel to the conservation successes in our marine fisheries under the management regime established by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has delivered us from the dark days of overharvest in the middle of the 20th century. Just since the year 2000, 34 fish stocks have been rebuilt. Two-thirds of formerly overfished stocks have been rebuilt or are well on their way to being rebuilt. These conservation successes prove that what’s good for fish is good for fishermen and associated industries. Combined, the commercial and recreational fishing industries generated over $208 billion in sales in 2015, while the combined commercial and recreational fishing industries support more than 1.62 million US jobs.

It’s therefore puzzling why some want to gut the Magnuson-Stevens Act of the very management tools that have made these conservation successes a reality. This past summer, bowing to a coterie of recreational industry interests, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross lengthened the recreational red snapper season in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico by fiat, from 3 to 42 days. The extended season led to recreational anglers exceeding their annual catch limit by 70% and set back the stock’s rebuilding schedule by years.

What’s most bewildering is that Ross extended the season knowing full well that doing so would cause this damage – though the expected damage appears now to have been underestimated – and he did it anyway. In a memo to Ross from Earl Comstock, the Commerce Department’s director of Policy and Strategic Planning, Comstock wrote that a lengthened 2017 season “would result in overfishing of the stock by six million pounds (40%), which will draw criticism from environmental groups and commercial fishermen.” It did indeed draw such criticism, and rightly so. The decision is obviously bad for conservation, and therefore bad for fishermen. It also appears to have been illegal, insofar as the first national standard of Magnuson-Stevens states, “Conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing…” The lengthened season also drew a lawsuit, as a result of which the department was forced to release Comstock’s damning memos.

Just so, bills like HR2023 in the House, the so called “Modern Fish Act,” and its counterpart in the Senate (S1520) would weaken or eliminate a number of the very management provisions of Magnuson-Stevens that brought US fisheries out of the dark days of overfishing and set them on the road to recovery. Among other bad ideas passing under the guise of management “flexibility,” these bills will eliminate concrete rebuilding timelines for a number of stocks, and weaken the requirement that recreational fishermen fish within annual catch limits. All of which represents an effort to shift the aim of marine fisheries management away from stock abundance and toward allowing more removals than is sustainable in the long run.

As with bighorn sheep in the Trans-Pecos, so with our nation’s fisheries through the foresight of conservation-minded management policies, populations have rebounded from historic lows even within living memory. But the efforts to achieve rebuilt populations of wildlife and fish have required care, attention, and restraint from those who engage with those populations, be they ranchers, commercial fishermen, hunters, or recreational anglers. But the discipline and self-restraint that rebuilding and restoration demands of us is well worth the reward: it is the only path to a future in which our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the outdoor experiences we have been fighting to preserve.

Here’s to hoping that efforts to impose “flexibility” on our fisheries are defeated by those who understand the value of abundance.

About Will Brown

Will Brown is an Anglican clergyman, hunter and sport fisherman.

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